Is Diamondbacks' Justin Upton the Next Barry Bonds? 2011 Production Predictions

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Is Diamondbacks' Justin Upton the Next Barry Bonds? 2011 Production Predictions
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Justin Upton

This past November when new Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers admitted that he would be willing to move star outfielder and former No. 1 draft choice Justin Upton, many people were slightly confused.  Not only was Justin Upton only 23-years old, but he was also clearly Arizona’s top player and had just inked a long-term deal (with the Diamondbacks former GM) to stay in Arizona with a relatively team-friendly price tag of only $50 million over the next five seasons. 

However, Upton was coming off what some people were calling a down year.  In 2009, Upton hit 26 home runs and a MVP-esque .898 OPS.  But in 2010, Upton only clubbed 17 home runs and saw his .OPS drop to a more modest .798.  In the following days after Towers admitted he had floated Upton to other teams, a flurry of rumors flew around about teams calling for the Diamondbacks star youngster. 

Fast forward to spring training, and the rumors have died down; it has become quite clear that Kevin Towers will not find a new home for his now 24-year-old right fielder.  One executive said the asking price for Upton was “ridiculous.”  The price was then believed to be worth at least four or five talented MLB ready players.  The kind of guys who only get moved for the best of the best or not even traded at all.

Sound ridiculous?  Consider this: Justin Upton may very well be the next Barry Bonds.  Not the Bonds who while using steroids in 2001 hit 73 home runs…and only 49 (!!) singles.  But more along the lines of the Bonds who was a perennial MVP candidate from about 1989-1998. 

Ken Levine/Getty Images
Barry Bonds in his early years

In Upton’s first 1,700 plate appearances, he has shown just that. In fact, his numbers are surprisingly similar to Bonds’ first 1,700 PAs.  Upton’s .OPS was .828, Bonds’ was a slightly lower .814.  Upton belted 60 home runs (one every 25 at bats), and Bonds drilled 65 (one every 23 at bats).  Bonds only collected 165 RBI while Upton plated 208 runners. 

Their slash lines were remarkably similar: Upton hit .272/.352/.471, while Bonds hit .258/.343/.471 over the same stretch of their careers.  The only significant difference between the two comes to us from WAR (wins above replacement), and this can be attributed to Upton’s average defense versus Bonds' allegedly elite D.  Upton was worth 7.7 WAR while Bonds was worth almost twice that at 14.4 WAR. 

However, we can certainly question the reliability of all ways for accounting for defense into WAR for players who did not play in our current sabermetrics era.  Today, WAR uses the defensive metric UZR which has only been around since 2002; UZR comes from batted ball data.  For all calculations of past players' WAR, defense is measured with a much-less reliable formula which takes fielding percentage, assists and putouts into play. 

So, how can we determine what to expect from the younger Upton brother over the next few seasons?  I believe that we can simply look to Bonds as a good indicator of how Justin will fare next season.  (His projections may be of particular interest to anyone out there who plays fantasy baseball.) 

Over Bonds’ next 1,900 plate appearances, he hit .279/.388/.496, and in addition, he averaged 26 home runs and 96 RBI.  His .OPS was a solid .886 and his WAR was an astronomical eight-plus a year.   The home run and RBI totals match Upton’s career high, so we know he is capable of producing at those levels in 2011, probably with just a little bit of a drop off in the HR department. 

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Will Upton's career be comparable to Bond's in the end? He would probably hope so.

The .388 on base percentage is probably a bit out of Upton’s reach due to Bonds over his next 1,900 PAs had a BB percentage well over 12 percent which is ridiculously high.  He even peaked at 15 percent in 1990.  That BB percentage is so high that only six players in 2010 had a BB percentage of over 14; they were: Daric Barton, Prince Fielder, Carlos Pena, Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and Jason Heyward. 

So while Upton’s career base on ball percentage is better than 10.5 percent, he will probably not reach the same status as Bonds.  But how much of a difference will the BB percentage difference of probably about 2 percent make on .OBP?

I looked to the stats to find out.  In 2010, three players made 675 plate appearances: Matt Holliday, Austin Jackson and Michael Cuddyer.  Holliday’s BB percentage was 10.2 percent, Jackson’s was 7 percent and Cuddyer’s was 8.6 percent.  When I subtracted the players’ .OBP from their batting averages (.AVG), I came down to a stat that I imagine is similar to .ISO (isolated slugging percentage) which for brevity's sake, I will call “.ISOBB”. 

Holliday’s BB percentage was 1.6 percent greater than Cuddyer’s, and when I subtracted their .ISOBB from one another’s, I came to find that the 1.6 percent BB percentage rate was good for .013 points in .OBP.  To check this, I compared Austin Jackson and Michael Cuddyer, whom also have 1.6 percent difference in their BB percentage and came to find that the difference in .ISOBB was also .013.

Player PAs BB% .OBP .OBP - .AVG= .ISOBB
Matt Holliday 675 10.2% .390 .390 - .312= .078
Austin Jackson 675 7.0% .345 .345 - .293= .052
Michael Cuddyer 675 8.6% .336 .336 - .271= .065

Are Bonds and Upton similar?

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The next step to determining Upton’s .OBP for 2011 is to determine his .ISOBB; Bonds’ was .109 which is pretty astronomical, and we have already established the fact that Upton’s will be around .013 to .020 different based on his lower BB percentage.  Upton’s .ISOBB should end up around .093.

The .279 average that Bond’s posted was lowered significantly by a .248 average one year.  In fact, over the course of both players’ earlier careers, Upton has shown that he possesses a far better batting average.  He hit over .300 in his second full season, a feat Bond’s didn’t accomplish until his fourth season.  So Upton, we can assume (safely), will probably hit higher than .279 in 2011; let’s say .284.  Which when adding in his .ISOBB, puts his .OPB at .377. 

The last thing to consider is slugging percentage, and Bonds probably edges out Justin Upton in this category.  How much? Well, during their first 1,700 PAs, Bonds’ .ISO was .014 better at .213, compared to Upton’s .199.  Over the next three seasons, Bond’s didn’t improve much, rising to about .219.  If Upton follows the same improvement, he should float in around .205 which would put him at a .489 slugging percentage.

All in all, Upton’s 2011 season should look something like this: .284/.377/.489 with about 25 home runs and 95 RBI.  I’ll be curious to see exactly what he does end up doing.  As for the predictions by the mathematicians/computers that are paid/designed to do predictions, when the average of fangraph.com’s “Marcel” and “Bill James” predictions are taken, it results in a .285/.367/.489 line…pretty similar to what I came up with actually. 

So is Justin Upton the next Barry Bonds? We’ll have to see, but I would say yes.

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